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Santa Rosa prioritizes PG&E settlement funds

The Santa Rosa City Council forged a consensus Friday on how to spend most of the $95 million PG&E settlement allocated to the city last summer, prioritizing the city’s budget, housing, wildfire prevention and a new library for Roseland.

After hours of virtual meetings Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, council members voiced their unanimous preference to stash $40 million of the settlement in the city’s reserves, which have been driven perilously low by emergency spending on myriad disasters, most recently including the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Glass fire. Budget officials with the city had estimated reserves would be depleted to $5 million without some kind of financial action.

The city received its $95 million portion of the settlement in July, part of a larger $1 billion agreement PG&E reached with local governments for wildfires in 2017 and 2018. An expansive community survey last fall helped the city move toward the eventual decisions about how to spend the settlement proceeds, which amount to about half of the city’s annual general fund spending and about a quarter of the city’s total annual budget.

Council members agreed without dissent to steer another $10 million from the settlement toward building new housing. That city money will match $10 million for housing put up by the County of Sonoma in October, and the joint sum will be placed in a city-county effort known as the Renewal Enterprise District.

Council members also agreed to give $8 million to the Santa Rosa Fire Department for two wildfire-related safety programs: about $5 million to fund a five-year vegetation management program and about $3 million to carry out the department’s Wildland Resiliency and Response Strategic Plan, likewise a five-year effort that could lead to new local wildfire rules, additional firefighting vehicles and revisions to the department’s staffing plans.

“We do our community a disservice if we don’t approve that today — though it sounds like we will,” Mayor Chris Rogers said, “because they have to get that work done without waiting another year.”

Those preferences came easy to the council, as they helped officials tick off key priorities of fiscal sustainability, housing production and wildfire protection.

More controversial was their eventual decision to set aside $10 million for a permanent library in Roseland, despite not knowing how, where or when such a facility would be built.

The council debated the issue before agreeing to reserve that funding while giving library backers an opportunity to show how they would use the money to deliver a proper library for Roseland, which the city annexed in late 2017. The southwest Santa Rosa neighborhood, predominantly Latino and historically underserved by local government, has been making do with a library branch in what was formerly a furniture store on Sebastopol Road.

The lack of a chosen location or a firm plan for a new Roseland library gave some on the council pause, but Councilman Jack Tibbetts sounded optimistic the funding would be more than sufficient to give southwest Santa Rosa a library to be proud of.

“I think we’ll actually get a pretty good library for less than $10 million,” Tibbetts said.

The decision choked up Councilman Eddie Alvarez, a Roseland businessman who became the neighborhood’s first elected city official last November.

“Just wanted to let you guys know how important this is,” Alvarez said. “It truly is. Thank you. And I know it probably produces more questions than answers, but this is what hope is about.”

The council’s preferences will be factored into the budget that will be shaped up over the next several months and finalized in June.

Still to come are decisions on how to spend the remaining $27 million. Numerous potential projects remain unfunded, such as the Fire Department’s plan to build a $21 million fire station to replace the $4 million firehouse that burned down in the October 2017 Tubbs fire.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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